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Tag Archives: Conrad A. Nervig

Act of Violence (Dec. 21, 1948)

Act of Violence
Act of Violence (1948)
Directed by Fred Zinnemann
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Fred Zinnemann’s Act of Violence opens with a shot of New York City at night. The Chrysler Building is silhouetted against a dark gray sky. Bronislau Kaper’s musical score is ominous and intense. Robert Ryan crosses the street toward the camera. He’s wearing a hat and a trench coat, and his stride is determined despite his limp.

The sound of his limping walk is distinctive. Step, drag, step, drag, step, drag, step, drag. It’s a sound that will haunt the film.

He walks upstairs to a shabby rented room and pulls a semiautomatic pistol from a dresser drawer. He slaps a magazine into the pistol, checks the barrel and the ejection port, and then the title of the film appears onscreen in block letters.

Act of Violence title

Now that’s the way to start a movie. Zinnemann, his cinematographer Robert Surtees, and his editor Conrad A. Nervig build more suspense and engagement in the first minute of Act of Violence than most movies are able to muster in their entire first reel.

It helps that the film drops us right into the action. Most movies in the 1940s began with screen after screen of opening credits; a time-honored cinematic tradition. Act of Violence and Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night are the only films from 1948 I’ve seen that eschewed that hoary convention, and both films immediately arrest the viewer.

After the opening, Ryan’s ominous character Joe Parkson takes a Greyhound bus to California, where the viewer meets the other star of the film; Van Heflin. Heflin plays Frank Enley, a World War II veteran, housing contractor, and family man with a beautiful young wife named Edith (Janet Leigh) and an adorable baby boy. (Janet Leigh was just 21 when this film was made. Heflin and Ryan were both in their late 30s.)

We know right from the beginning that Joe Parkson wants to kill Frank Enley, but we don’t know why. For awhile, all we know is that Enley was Parkson’s CO in the war, and that Parkson has a vendetta against him.

Van Heflin and Robert Ryan

M-G-M didn’t produce very many noirs, but when they did, they were glossy affairs with high productions values and great actors, like The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Undercurrent (1946), Lady in the Lake (1947), and High Wall (1947).

Act of Violence is a stylish thriller that looks and feels ahead of its time. The cinematography is meticulously constructed and dripping with noir atmosphere, but it never feels studio-bound and uses real-world locations beautifully. The sound effects in the film sometimes do a better job of creating suspense than any musical score could.

All the actors in Act of Violence are really good. Van Heflin was a sad-eyed Everyman, and Robert Ryan had a physically intimidating presence, but enough charisma to make even his most villainous characters magnetic. Apparently Gregory Peck and Humphrey Bogart were originally slated to star in Act of Violence, but I can’t picture anyone but Heflin and Ryan as these characters.

Janet Leigh has a pretty thankless role, but she has enough star power to make it interesting. Phyllis Thaxter doesn’t have much to do as Joe’s girl Ann, but she’s fine. Mary Astor is wonderful in an unglamorous role as a barfly obsessed with “kicks” who Frank meets on a business trip to Los Angeles, and the always-creepy Berry Kroeger is great in a small part.

I thought Zinnemann’s previous film, The Search (1948) was a minor masterpiece, and I feel the same way about Act of Violence. Zinnemann’s best work may have been ahead of him, but Act of Violence is an exceedingly well-made, visually inventive thriller with enough moral ambiguity to keep it interesting. I think our cultural views have evolved since World War II in ways that make the central conceit of the film even more ambiguous than it probably seemed when the film was first released.

I don’t want to go into more detail for fear of spoilers, but for me there’s a great deal of meaning packed into Enley’s statement to his wife, “A lot of things happened in the war that you wouldn’t understand. Why should you? I don’t understand them myself.”

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Courage of Lassie (Nov. 8, 1946)

Pal rides again! In Fred M. Wilcox’s Courage of Lassie, the irrepressible little scamp from whose seed all dogs who ever played Lassie are descended plays an orphaned collie. The little guy is left behind in an idyllic, Technicolor wilderness after the old fisherman who owns Lassie rows off with her and what he thinks are all of her puppies.

There follows a delightful montage of the little collie frolicking in the woods for days with birds, other four-legged beasties, and even a big black bear. This being a kid’s movie, however, you can be sure that gut-wrenching tragedy is right around the corner. Sure enough, the collie puppy and his little fox friend are caught in stormy rapids, and the fox is washed away, presumably to his death. The puppy, balanced on a tangle of branches, safely makes it to shore. Seemingly unfazed by his little buddy’s demise, the puppy’s next move is to happily run off with Elizabeth Taylor’s pants, and a lifelong bond is formed.

Taylor was 14 years old when she appeared in this film. Just like Pal, she’s playing a different role than she played in the film Lassie Come Home (1943). I think Taylor was a fantastic child actor. Just like in National Velvet (1944), she takes material that could be laughable or treacly and performs it with such conviction that you can’t help but be swept along. As Kathie Merrick, she believes in her dog, whom she names “Bill,” even though her family doesn’t think he has what it takes to be a sheep-herding dog.

By the end of the film Bill will prove that he not only has “the right stuff” in the pasture, but that he can be drafted and serve under heavy fire just like any other red-blooded American boy.

Bill goes through a lot in this film. He’s shot by a couple of dopey young hunters with quick trigger fingers, he’s run over by a truck while herding sheep across the road (and carried off by the well-meaning driver who doesn’t realize Bill belongs to someone), he’s renamed “Duke” at Dr. Colman’s Dog and Cat Hospital in the big city, and he’s trained for war and shipped off to the Aleutians to fight the Japanese.

“Duke” performs bravely despite a bloody neck wound, dragging himself through the mud to deliver a message, then leading the reinforcements back to the troops. He saves the day, but suffers from shell shock. He escapes the train that is taking him home and runs off into the area of the country where he remembers being with Kathie. Unfortunately, his PTSD has taken a toll, and he lives as a feral animal, raiding hen houses and killing local livestock. Kathie saves him from a farmer’s bullet, but he’s still put on trial as a mad dog.

Things look pretty grim for Bill until Harry MacBain (Frank Morgan, who played Prof. Marvel and the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz) makes an impassioned plea for understanding. This is the most interesting part of the film, since MacBain has looked up Bill’s war record, and his speech is a thinly veiled reference to human veterans who may be acting differently after their service overseas. Violent, antisocial behavior and drastic personality changes can be a byproduct of serving in combat, he says, and we on the homefront shouldn’t be so quick to judge our returning veterans. Even if they’re not lovable border collies.